Economics is at the heart of why Virginia existed. Colony founders wanted to become wealthy, the Crown saw it’s own mercantilistic opportunity, and settlers risked their lives in order to find a better station in life.
How did Virginia’s key players accomplish their goals? Were their policies sound? If not, what impact did they have on the colony? My guest, Tony Williams answered those questions and more in his book The Jamestown Experiment.
Tony argues that in a changing world the Virginia settlers figured out that the key to economic growth hinged upon private property. Once the Virginia Company extended private land ownership to the colonists the Colony began to emerge from her macabre past. The emergence wasn’t perfect, but it was the beginning of a profound economic explosion that made Virginia wealthy.
The lessons learned in 17th Century Virginia influenced later generations and laid the foundation from which the United States built itself into the wealthiest country in the world. As such, it is still wise to take a look back into Jamestown’s experiment today.
For decades prevailing thought said that 17th Century Virginia was chaotic, had little to build upon, and therefore left a scanty legacy. Historians such as Bernard Bailyn prominently argued that 17th Century Virginia was untamed and chaotic, but in 1985 Jon Kukla challenged that opinion.
Dr. Kukla argued that Pre-Restoration 17th Century Virginia was anything but chaotic and did indeed have order. That order may not be what we think of today, yet the foundations that Virginia settlers laid down in the 17th Century allowed for subsequent generations to build a strong colony. That colony would then go on to profoundly influence America’s founding generation, which in turn built what was then a radically different governmental/political entity that the world had never seen.
William Berkeley arrived in Virginia during the winter 1642. He had many obstacles to overcome, even before he left England, but once he handled those obstacles he started to build a solid foundation from which to govern Virginia.
In spite of former Governor Harvey’s failures, he did put a few things in place that Berkeley could build upon, such as increased domestic government. Berkeley decided to keep those innovations in place, and work through those established channels to get the job done.
Berkeley’s approach to Virginia’s affairs endeared him to the many opposing factions. He’d need all the help he could get to govern the colony, especially considering the ambiguous political situation upon Berkeley’s arrival.
A potentially volatile Powhatan tribe made Berkeley’s position all the more tenuous. But the new governor was up to the task, and the beginning of his first gubernatorial tenure signaled a time of stability unseen in the colony. Virginia was now poised to advance like never before.
I love traveling all over Virginia. Finding off the beaten path locations, eating at local dives, learning poignant stories combine to make each trip memorable. Sometimes, however, I don’t have to travel to experience all that Virginia has to offer. Sometimes it’s in my back yard. That’s the case with Fort Monroe.
Fort Monroe’s story spans more than 400 years, even longer if one includes what we know of the native Kecoughtan tribe. The original Jamestown colonists first met the Kecoughtans in Spring 1607 before the colonists sailed up river to establish Jamestown. The colonists came back, established friendly relations, and over time built a series of lookout posts that endured through some hardest struggles that the colonists suffered.
That colonial outpost became the port of entry for one of America’s great peoples. In 1619 “20 and odd negroes” from Angola arrived signaling the beginning of a new era in Virginia and America’s history. That history hasn’t always been laudable as those original settlers built new lives and saw their progeny forced into slavery by as early as the 1640s. Those slaves and their stories have left a deep imprint not only on Virginia’s historical landscape, but on her physical makeup as well.
Point Comfort and her early fortifications developed into more permanent bastions in the early 19th century, largely aided by slave labor. After the British marauded the Chesapeake Bay region and burned Washington DC during the War of 1812, the sorely embarrassed government undertook a series of forts built to ensure such an invasion would never happen again. Fort Monroe was the keystone in that military wall.
The best military engineers of the day, including Robert E. Lee, descended upon Hampton to build the stone structure, as well as her sister fort known then as Fort Calhoun, but now known as Fort Wool, just off of Point Comfort’s coast.
These engineers were so successful that when the Civil War exploded onto history’s pages the Union maintained control of Fort Monroe, and never endured a serious threat to losing control of the strategic location.
Because the Union kept control they could use the fort as a starting point of major campaign thrusts toward Richmond. But the fort was also used for something else. Area slaves viewed Fort Monroe as potential salvation. Freedom.
On one May 1861 night three slaves tested their fate. They got into a skiff near Sewell’s Point, Norfolk, and rowed across the dangerous Hampton Roads waterway to reach Fort Monroe.
The Fort’s commanding officer, Benjamin Butler, had just been installed a day earlier, and now he had a decision to make. Butler was a lawyer from Massachusetts. He knew full well the law stating that runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters under the Fugitive Slave Law, but in a history changing decision, Butler decided to keep the runaway slaves as “contrabands of war.”
Word of Butler’s decision spread, and many more slaves poured into “Freedom’s Fortress” throughout the war.
After the Civil War ended, the region’s blacks largely remained. They started schools, notably built upon Mary Peake’s pioneering work, some of which was done in Fort Monroe before her 1862 death.
The American Missionary Association brought black and white leaders together in 1868 to formalize education by starting the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, today’s Hampton University. Their mission was to teach and train freed black slaves, which attracted attention far and wide, perhaps most famously, Booker T. Washington.
Because of new opportunities, America’s black history, beginning in 1619, could now be seen as beginning anew in the 1860s, and it still centered at Point Comfort. The shining monument to that storied history is Fort Monroe, “Freedom’s Fortress.”
1619 was the beginning of Black History in English North America. That history began here at Point Comfort.
Lee’s Quarters, as seen from Fort Monroe’s South Wall
Fort Monroe’s Southeastern wall and moat
Gun emplacements atop Fort Monroe
Quarter’s #1, where Lincoln stayed while visiting Fort Monroe
The “Lincoln” gun
Entrance to Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Casemate Museum at Fort Monroe
Harriet Tubman honored at Fort Monroe
Edgar Allan Poe at Fort Monroe
Inside Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Park
The Jefferson Davis Exhibit at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Inside Jefferson Davis Jail Cell at Fort Monroe
Examples of the types of shells used at Fort Monroe
A recreated watering hole at Fort Monroe’s Casemate Museum
A cargo ship passes Fort Monroe and her outer defenses at Hampton Roads
Virginians exerted a measure of some independence in electing their own governors for a short time during the 1620s. But King Charles and his privy council as well as a cabal of London merchants wanted to take some power back for themselves. These groups accomplished their goal by appointing Captain John Harvey to be governor in 1628.
Harvey arrived in Virginia sometime during late winter, early spring 1630. He tried to impose a more centralized authority on the colony, but the Virginian’s wanted none of it.
When another well connected merchant entered into the mix, a wide rift separated Virginians from newly arriving Maryland settlers. John Harvey fell on the wrong side of that ever widening chasm, and lost it all. What became Harvey’s loss, however, became Virginia’s gain.
Virginia became officially became a Royal Colony in 1624. What did that mean? Would the newly formed freedoms be sacrificed on the monarchical altar? What about the rapidly expanding economy? Would that be brought back under governmental control, and suffer under mercantilistic ideas?
Virginia’s second generation had all of these questions and more in mind upon receiving news of the Virginia Company’s demise due to Royal interference. Sure, they suffered, and continued suffering for years to come, but they were figuring out life in the New World. The last thing they wanted was to be plagued by the Old World systems that they had risked their lives to escape.
As a result, 1620s Virginia became an era of change. Englishmen became Virginians, and those Virginians used their fledgling colonial freedoms to their fullest. Their work ensured a permanence hitherto unknown. It also ensured that Virginia was here to stay.
Virginia has certainly had her fair share of outstanding historical figures, both men and women. In this interview, the Library of Virginia’s Dr. Sandra Gioia Treadway and I discuss just 5 of the many important women to have graced our storied past.
Women highlighted in this episode are –
Anna Maria Lane
Elizabeth Van Lew
These women were daring, powerful, and brilliant. Tune in to hear what made them great!
Anna Maria Lane Marker in Richmond, Virginia
Elizabeth Van Lew’s Grave at Shockoe Hill Cemetery, Richmond, VA
Mary Jackson’s Grave at Bethel AME Church, Hampton, VA
The Pamunkey Frontlet, presented to Cockacoeske as a gift from King Charles II
In hindsight it is easy to say that the Virginia Company was doomed. It had endured 17 years of hardship, but before Opechancanough’s 1622 raid, the situation seemed to be improving – in Virginia at least. Back in England serious company mismanagement ripped the venture apart.
King James, eager to be involved in some fashion, continued to keep an eye on Virginian developments, with special regard given to Edwin Sandys’ plans. James wanted to be rid of Sandys, but the able parliamentarian continued to sidestep the king at every turn. But Sandys’ maneuvering ended when a letter from a down and out Gloucestershire boy was published for king and subject to read.
The English had managed to fight back after Opechancanough’s raid, even gaining superiority by 1624. Yet, though the Powhatans suffered defeat in Virginia, their raids scored a direct hit against the Virginia Company at home. It was all King James needed to thoroughly investigate Company dealings, and in the end, shut down the Virginia Company of London. Thus, a new Virginia era would begin in 1624. She became a Royal Colony.
All photography used on this site is owned and copyrighted by the author. The Featured Image is of the Royal Seal from the House of Stuart located within the Memorial Church at Jamestown. Van Dyck’s King Charles is available on Wikipedia.
Edwin Sandys took over the Virginia Company 12 years after she began. During that period, Virginia struggled from one horror to another. Sandys’ election came at a time when Virginia seemed to finally be taking prosperous shape, but though Virginia was proving to be profitable, the Company was in serious debt.
Sandys oversaw the incredible plantation boom as well as all of the important 1619 Virginian firsts, but though things were improving in the colony, political situations in England threatened the colony’s parent company.
Sandys had many powerful enemies, none more powerful than King James, who turned against the Virginia Company leader after the European Thirty Years’ War erupted. Sandys, the Member of Parliament, crossed the King over budgetary issues surrounding James’ desire to play a part in Europe. King James was not amused. He jailed Sandys, and then began craftily moving to undo the Virginia Company.
In spite of the King’s attempts, the Company persevered, that is, it lasted until a horrific report arrived in July 1622. That report left the Company in tatters once and for all.
The Virginia Colony made great strides throughout 1619, and arguably the greatest was the formation of representative government, the first such government formed in the New World.
The Company didn’t want to loosen the reigns as freely as they did, but once the steps were taken, the representatives didn’t look back. John Pory guided the proceedings, which lasted 5 days from July 30 to August 4, and set the tone for future Virginian as well as American government into motion.
Because of this precedent, the House of Burgesses is a more than worthy topic of study, especially in that the original House is still with us today as the House of Delegates, the lower body of the Virginia General Assembly, and many great men sharpened their political acumen therein.